Ex-NASA Astronaut Charged With Murder Of Two Young Girls Following Car Crash — Alcohol A Factor, Say Police

A retired NASA astronaut, who served on five shuttle missions between 1994 and 2000, has been charged with murder following an alcohol-induced car crash that killed two young girls.

The highly-decorated astronaut, James Donald Halsell Jr., was arrested on Monday night and charged with the murder of two young girls, Naiomi Deona James and Jayla Latrice Parler, after the car he was driving rear-ended the Ford Fiesta carrying the girls, driven by their father, 37-year-old Pernell James. Neither girl was wearing their seatbelt at the time of the crash, and the two were reportedly thrown from the car. The girls’ father told officers that he had been returning from Texas to Alabama when the former astronaut hit them. Dennis Stripling, mayor of the town of Brent, Alabama, said the story is all the more tragic because the family was so close to home when the ex-NASA astronaut hit them.

“It’s very tragic, a sad thing that has happened. They were like 20 minutes from home when this accident happened.”

Police documents state that speed and alcohol were a factor in the early morning crash, which happened at around 2:50 a.m. Monday. According to CNN, the retired astronaut was travelling along the highway at a high rate of speed, when he rear-ended the family’s car, crushing it, and pushing it sideways across the highway. The car then hit the median, flipped twice, and landed in the opposite lane.

The murder charge came after 11-year-old Naiomi was pronounced dead at the scene, and 13-year-old Jayla — who was rushed to DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa — was later pronounced dead by doctors. The two others in the car — the girls’ father, and 25-year-old Shontel Latriva Cutts — were also rushed to the hospital. Pernell James was expected to be released from hospital on Tuesday, while Cutts is listed in fair condition.

The retired astronaut — who piloted two space shuttle missions in 1994 and 1995, and commanded another three between 1997 and 2000 — had told officers that prior to the crash, he had stopped at a Motel 6 in Tuscaloosa, where he consumed three glasses of wine.

When police arrived on the scene of the crash, they arrested the acclaimed astronaut, stating in court documents following his being charged with murder that Halsell had allegedly tried to steal the car of a passing motorist who had stopped to help the victims. Officers also said that the astronaut had told them he didn’t remember leaving the motel, or the crash. Though police didn’t find any drugs or alcohol on his person or in the car, upon searching the motel room of the astronaut, officers found an empty bottle of wine and 10 empty sleeping pill packages.

A state trooper who wrote a court deposition for Halsell’s murder charge confirmed that alcohol was likely a factor in the car crash, reports the Guardian.

“Halsell’s speech was slurred, eyes were dilated, clothes dishevelled and he was unstable on his feet and smelled of alcohol.”

Years before he would be charged in the murder of two young girls, James Halsell Jr. was a highly decorated astronaut who logged over 1,250 hours in space during his five space flights. According to NASA’s website, Halsell also helped to construct the International Space Station. Prior to becoming an astronaut, he was a test pilot and colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He left NASA and retired as an astronaut in 2006 to take a job in Utah with ATK Launch Systems.

After his arrest, Halsell was charged with murder and booked into the Tuscaloosa County Jail. The former astronaut was released on Tuesday after posting $150,000 bond, said Sgt. Alex Miles of the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office. No court date has been set at this time.

[Image via Tuscaloosa County Jail]